In its first 10 years of moviemaking, Marvel Studios established something of a myth that persists to this very day: “In Feige We Trust,” fans would exult, as if a prayer to ward against evil rather than a parasocial relationship with a man worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The idea that Marvel’s movies were all building to a singular thing planned a decade in the making was almost as important to its success as its films — and now the lack of it in its current era feels notable.
The first three “phases” of Marvel Studios’ cinematic releases — retroactively dubbed “The Infinity Saga” in reference to its defining central conflict — were all built around teases toward a singular climactic payoff. Iron Man ushered in Samuel L. Jackson to change blockbuster moviemaking forever in a singular, post-credits sequence to entice Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark into joining a team of Earth’s mightiest superheroes. From there, all the pieces slowly slot into place, movie after movie: the Avengers were formed, their greatest threat Thanos was made known, and the hunt for the six Infinity Stones and the gauntlet used to manipulate their awesome power began, persisted, and ultimately concluded with Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame.
No matter how varied a movie Marvel put out, some little tidbit would be there, whether in the film itself or as part of one of those now-ever-present post-credits scenes, promising that it was all building up to Something, regardless of how seemingly unrelated a movie had preceded this fact. And it was simple: Thanos and the Infinity Stones were a singular threat, hammered home over and over until he finally made himself properly known in Infinity War. It was one thing that you could point anyone to, comics diehard, movie fan, or complete newcomer — this is why you have to see every movie, this is why it all matters, because it builds to this.
Thanos is done and dusted (quite literally), and now in its “Phase 4” era, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is bigger than ever, metatextually or otherwise. The studio’s interconnected releases are no longer confined to the box office — and when they are they overwhelm and dominate to defy a changed world rocked by years of a global pandemic, with stories debuting on screens big and small alike with an onslaught of Disney+ streaming shows. The universe itself is now bigger than ever too, as stories dive into the concept of an entire multiverse of Marvel tales, alternate realities and characters stretching out not just across one reality, but many. The latest entry in the canon, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, is seemingly already laying the groundwork to hint at one big thing on the horizon — an eventual loose adaptation of 2015’s Marvel Comics soft-reboot Secret Wars, which saw the death and eventual steady reconstruction of the publisher’s multiversal reality.
And yet, Phase 4 feels different to what came before, and not just because of its hybrid release format encompassing TV and film. If Thanos was the minor, but ever-present driving force that propelled the MCU’s first decade, then a few years in Phase 4 is lacking anything really of a similar sort. There’s no need to unite a team of Avengers, the survivors of which have all gone their separate ways after Endgame, because there’s yet to be a singular threat that overshadows all these different stories — as characters like Sam Wilson, Wanda Maximoff, and Natasha Romanoff all get siloed off into their own individual stories. Loki introduced both the idea of the multiverse as a concept and Jonathan Majors’ Kang the Conqueror as a potential successor to Thanos’ throne, but although we know he’s planned to appear in the next Ant-Man and the Wasp film, he’s yet to make more appearances beyond that, as Thanos began to after the first Avengers. That multiversal concept is the closest the latest swath of releases has come to having a unifying build-up, between Loki, What If?, Spider-Man: No Way Home, and now Multiverse of Madness — but even if Doctor Strange has begun to already threaten its existence, something as nebulous as the presence of alternate realities doesn’t quite draw all these films toward something in the manner that Thanos and the Infinity Stones did.
This sense of aimlessness feels odd to an audience that has, over a decade, been trained to connect the dots and see how each of Marvel’s releases connects to the others. The well-crafted illusion that Marvel and its producers had a long game planned out 10 years in advance — and it really was always just an illusion, despite its persistence, no matter how many times evidence proved the contrary — is hard to maintain when the illusion is barely alluded to. Moon Knight passed by with but a singular explicit reference to another Marvel property, and although shows like Loki, WandaVision, and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier all starred major characters from Marvel’s movies, their stories were isolated from each other and a wider whole. The post-credits sequences that once teased a threat like Thanos now instead offer isolated snapshots of comic book characters to come, and the dazzling Hollywood superstars set to portray them, from Eternals’ Harry Styles as Eros, to Multiverse of Madness’s Charlize Theron as Clea. The movies and shows rarely also feel like they’re in conversation with each other — no one’s casually mentioned that Eternals climaxes with the frozen corpse of a giant cosmic entity sitting in the Indian Ocean, for example, which feels like a thing some people would at least discuss the way the Battle of New York was after Avengers. Doctor Strange picks up on Wanda Maximoff’s story after the events of WandaVision, and although there’s a passing mention of Westview itself, the film arguably re-treads her character arc in the series, for better or worse, in such a way that having seen the show beforehand doesn’t really matter.
After that decade of illusory planning — and more particular the idea that, because of it, every Marvel release is essential for even the most casual fan, as all parts build to a grander whole — that relative disharmony may seem like a negative to a fandom that has, intentionally so by the studio, been trained to relish those connections and consume as much Marvel mania as possible, regardless of where it releases. But if anything, Phase 4’s lack of cohesion on this front is a benefit in the way it feels closer to the world of its comic book source material than every before. Superhero comics, for better or worse, are a wild medium to get into, if only because of the sheer depth and history behind characters that have eons of stories and retcons in their names. But to read Marvel Comics in the 21st century, you don’t really have to read everything the company puts out. You can chase characters you like, teams you’re interested in, and individual story arcs and events that draw your attention, because while characters can move around between titles and different social circles, you don’t have to understand the whole of Earth-616 to care about what’s happening with Spider-Man or the X-Men. (The latter are a perfect example of this right now, ascendant in an age of comics that makes it easier than ever to just read X-Men comics without a care in the world as to what other superheroes are up to.) There’s something freeing about that, after the daunting initial idea of stepping your toes into such a vast medium, to be able to pick and choose what matters to you.
Maybe that’s what the Marvel Cinematic Universe is evolving into as Phase 4 continues to flourish. Sure, there will always be fans who do follow every single show and film, relishing the Easter eggs and the connections that tie them all together, no matter how loose. There will always be events that come to a climax and bring these heroes and villains together across multiple films, in the same way comic books have their own line-wide events. But now more than ever it’s easier than ever to just dip into the parts of the MCU that intrigue you the most, following a show, a single movie, or even a single character without having to know the entire bigger picture beyond it. As Marvel tries to define its universe once more in a post-Thanos world, maybe the real definition it needs is not one at all. After all, it’s a big multiverse out there.
Want more Gizmodo news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel and Star Wars releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about House of the Dragon and Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.